Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Endings and Beginnings...
...Tomorrow Is A Brand New Year!

As the saying goes, "There's a first time for everything." There is also, of course, a last time for everything. Yesterday I went to water my plants. I use a white enamel tea kettle with red trim. It belonged to my maternal Grandmother. When my sister and I were kids we would use it to water the potted geraniums she had in her back yard.

Gramma's Kettle ©2014 Eric E. Paige
Using it stirs up a flood of memories of her and my Grandfather and the house they lived in on College Hill. I can smell the geraniums and the musty basement you navigated to get to the sloped backyard -- the house was built into the side of hill. I can vividly picture the porch with its sisal rug and a table that folded up against the wall. I remember sitting on the porch watching the hummingbirds buzz in and out of the feeder that Grampa would dutifully fill each day. I remember sitting on the porch with Gramma and Grampa watching a lightning storm, Grampa's constant and unsuccessful attempts to keep squirrels away from the bird feeder, and looking out their kitchen window as flood waters crept over the back yard of the neighbor at the foot of the hill. When my mother was in graduate school, we would spend afternoons with my grandparents. Lunch was sandwiches, made with Pepperridge Farm bread (much nicer than the gooey TipTop bread my parents bought) and served on paper plates which Gramma, a survivor of The Great Depression, would gently wash and reuse, even if parts of them were stained bright yellow from her homemade mustard pickles. Around 3:00 we would have iced tea and cookies. Gramma drew hers from a small chrome teapot of room temperature tea that she kept at the back of the stove, a habit she no doubt developed back in the days of wood stoves, when the back of the stove was handy place to keep things warm. My sister, Grampa, and I drank iced tea that Grampa made.  It was a mix of instant iced tea mixed with brewed tea and lemon juice -- not as cloyingly sweet as the instant iced tea mix packed with sugar and 'real lemon flavor' but not as bitter as the strong brew that Gramma sipped.

Anyway, yesterday I filled Gramma's white enamel kettle with red trim and almost immediately became aware of water running down my hand. The poor, little kettle had sprung a leak. I will miss using it, but will still keep it. It is a beautiful reminder of two of my favorite people and a touchstone to my childhood.

Shredded Pork Rolls
©2014 Eric E. Paige
I experienced another ending yesterday. I went to one of my favorite restaurants for the last time. After 20 some odd years in business, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant is closing. It is in the heart of the Vietnamese neighborhood just down the road from me. It is one of those 'hole in the wall' type places. It stands, unobtrusively, yet defiantly at the corner of two major streets, looking out onto what is arguably one of the neighborhood's largest and most popular Vietnamese restaurants from one side and a large, 60s-glitzy Chinese restaurant from the other.  The decor is worn, the table cloths are whatever was on sale at the local dollar store -- one summer I sat down at a table draped with a Christmas themed tablecloth. Like so many vintage buildings, the high ceiling has been covered with a drop ceiling, but the beautifully patterned floor made of various colors of tiny, hexagonal tiles remains. I first went there shortly after I moved to Chicago. Earlier in the year I had eaten at the fancier, more popular, more expensive place across the street. The food there was good, but I was on a budget -- rent in Chicago is significantly higher than rent in rural, East-Central Illinois, and though my location had changed, my salary had not. I was intrigued by the neon sign that promised 'Cheap Eats', and indeed the menu in the window sported prices that were almost half of those of the other place, so I gave it shot. I was greeted by the owner, who is also the waiter and the Maitre D'. He brought me a glass of tea and a menu.  His wife is the chef, prep cook, and dishwasher. Like Norm's wife Vera on the series 'Cheers', you don't see her, but you may hear her and husband conversing in Vietnamese through the little serving window between the dining area and the kitchen. Cash only, and the owner tends to round to the nearest dollar, so as not to have to deal with coins -- still the prices are so low, even when he rounds up in his favor, it is still a bargain. Like other restaurants in the neighborhood, they would close for several weeks at a time. In September, it's their annual trip to Vietnam, and in February a cruise to escape the cold, gray Chicago winters. Well earned on their part, as they are normally open 7 days a week for lunch and dinner.  A couple of weeks ago, I went there for Pho (pronounced 'phuh'), a Vietnamese soup with rice vermicelli, meat, and a seasoned broth with hints of star anise.  It is a served with a small platter of raw bean sprouts, lime, jalapeno, and Thai basil, all of which can be used to customize the soup to your taste.  The contrast of crunchy, raw sprouts and the savory broth make it as refreshing on Summer day as it is in the Winter.

Noodle Bowl 702
©2014 Eric E. Paige
Yesterday I had shredded pork rolls -- cooked pork, raw sprouts, clear noodles, and basil in an uncooked rice wonton wrapper, served with a spicy-sweet-tangy-savory dipping sauce that has a splash of fish sauce and shredded daikon and carrot. I also had dish number 702, the Vietnamese name escapes me, It's a bowl of rice noodles topped with shredded carrot and romaine lettuce, crushed peanuts, crispy-fried shallots, diced cucumber, an eggroll, and thin strips of tender, marinated steak.

It was delicious as always, perhaps more so because I knew it was the last time I would be having this dish at this place.  A good reminder that we should savor our experiences, as nothing is permanent.

Yes, endings can be bittersweet, but as old things leave our lives, new ones come in. I cannot water my plants with Gramma's kettle or enjoy a 702 while the owner shares his thoughts on the world we live in, but I do have the memories. As I was typing this, the management company for my apartment building delivered their monthly newsletter. Featured prominently on the cover is cardinal, a bird my sister and I associate with our Grandmother -- perhaps she is watching over me, reading this blog, perhaps it is a simple coincidence -- either way the memories and affection for her are real.

As you may recall, my resolution for 2014 was to try and savor at least part of each day.  I am human, so there are few days that that didn't happen, but most days it did and it has made a difference in the way I feel.  Like I did last January, and like I do most mornings, I started the day by watching the Sun rise over Lake Michigan, a beautiful start to the end of a year!

May 2015 bring you many blessings and the opportunity to live WholeARTedly,


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Who Wants To Fight Crowds?...
...Alternatives To Black Friday Madness

Thanksgiving is almost upon us.  It is my favorite holiday.  It is about getting together with people you care about and being thankful for what you have and sharing a meal--what could be better! It is probably the most egalitarian of our holidays -- you don't have to belong to a particular religion, or for that matter believe in a higher power, to be grateful. Somewhere along the way we've lost sight of how important this is and after spending the day be grateful we rush out the next day -- and sometimes even on Thanksgiving day itself -- to acquire even more in a retail spending frenzy. Trust me, I like to save money, and as someone who owned a store, I get the need for customers, but almost everything about Black Friday and the weekend that follows seems to be contrary to the point of Thanksgiving.

I often say that we vote with our dollars and that those votes are some of the most powerful votes we cast. We can blame retailer's and mall owner's for the madness, but the fact of the matter is that our participation is why the madness continues.  Here are some ways to enjoy the holiday weekend without succumbing to the general craziness (there are even some suggestions for those who can't bear the thought of NOT shopping):

1. Have a movie or TV marathon day with your friends and family. Nothing fancy, kick back, enjoy some leftovers and watch the entire series of Harry Potter or the numerous football games or whatever strikes your fancy. You could also spend an afternoon or evening playing board games, cards, or for that matter some friendly competition on your favorite gaming system if you just can't let that technology go! Wouldn't you rather be hanging out with people you care about than fighting total strangers all clamoring to be the lucky few to get that doorbuster deal?

2. Have friends over for a potluck celebration.  A friend of mine is doing this the Saturday after Thanksgiving and I am absolutely looking forward to it. I am thankful for both my family and my friends and this year I get to celebrate with both. 

3. Take in a local museum, go see a local theatrical production, or attend a concert. While the superstores and malls may need your dollars, chances are your local cultural institutions need them more!  My hometown museum, Billings Farm & Museum, in Woodstock, Vermont, has a great Thanksgiving program. Here in Chicago, The Museum of Science and Industry has its annual Christmas Around the World exhibit of nearly 50 trees representing countries across the globe. There are plenty of free and low-cost programs, concerts, and performances all across the country, just check out the Internet or your local paper.

...still can't imagine NOT shopping on Black Friday or Thanksgiving Weekend?  Here are some alternatives to the crowds:

1. Support a local craft or art fair. This is a favorite tradition in my family. We would go to Weston, Vermont every year to their annual Christmas Bazaar held in the Weston Playhouse. Here in my Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park, there will be a Craft-Tacular Art Spectacle held at Rogers Park Social on Glenwood Avenue on Saturday, November 29th. Events like these offer unique and interesting items made by local artists and craftspeople, and you're shopping dollars stay in the community.

2. Check out the local stores and neighborhoods.  One of my favorite things to do here in Chicago (any time of year) is to explore one of our many neighborhoods.Each one has it's own flavor and culture and yet all of them are Chicago.  Exploration, however, is not limited to urban areas. When I lived in Vermont, after going to the Christmas Bazaar, we would swing over to the nearby town of Chester, Vermont, to explore some of the local shops and antique stores.  Don't forget to check out local grocers and bakers when you're out and about -- they are great sources for hard to find food items and gourmet treats. My Polish grandmother was tickled when I brought her a butter lamb from Hapanowicz Brothers in New York Mills for Easter one year, and at Christmas the local Polish grocers here in Chicago allow me to continue the Polish traditions of breaking opÅ‚atki at Christmas and making homemade horseradish (chrzan) at Easter. No crowds and plenty of parking, it is a great alternative to the craziness of the malls and plazas, and again, you're helping small, local businesses make a go of it and keeping money in your community, plus you're much more likely to find something unique or unusual.  

Remember, we have many blessings for which we are thankful. Time spent with family and friends is one of the most precious and fleeting, so make the most of it this holiday!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Savory and Sweet...
...Keeping My Resolution

As I posted at the beginning of the year, I made only one resolution: to savor each day.  I'll be the first to admit it, some days are easier than others!  Our weather has run the gamut of snow, below zero temps, and cloudy, gray days; work has been busy; there's the usual plethora of day to day concerns that distract us from enjoying life, and there is still mountains of stuff that I need to unpack and organize from my move . Still, I have found plenty of opportunities to savor each day.

I am quite fortunate to be blessed with an amazing view of Lake Michigan and if nothing else, I try to start each day by watching the sunrise. Some days are a dazzling display of color, others are moody and gray, but nonetheless beautiful in their own right:

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

I also get treated to beautiful sunsets and moonrises! Taking time to watch the subtle changes as we go from night to day or day to night is relaxing and reconnects us with nature -- a connection that is easy to lose with our busy lives, especially when you live in a city.

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved
(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

One thing I have managed to overcome, at least for the time being, is my disdain for winter. When I was younger it was my favorite season, but when you're older, have to drive in the snow, pay for heating fuel, or worse, don't have the money to heat your home like you'd like, winter loses its appeal. I am lucky to live in a toasty apartment with heat included as part of my rent, and though most of my work day is spent driving, I have begun to re-appreciate the beauty of winter: the softness of a snowy day, the contrast of dark, barren trees against the bright white, and the cold, crisp light of sunny, January day.

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

Winter aside, I have also been savoring the day by enjoying my new apartment.  Not only by working on my art studio (as I posted the other day), but also be rediscovering my love of cooking.

Moving, work, the holidays, all took their toll and at the end of the year I felt like I was running on autopilot. Cooking among the chaos was just two daunting and I settled for a horrible diet of fast food.  Though I am still unpacking, I can at least prepare homemade meals again!

It hasn't been without challenges. Aside from the fact I have a much smaller kitchen, I also still have quite a bit in storage.  The other day while shopping, I decided to make a Bolognese sauce. I eagerly unloaded my grocery bags, only to remember that my knives were somewhere in my storage unit, probably at the bottom of a very big pile of boxes.  Fortunately, I was not without cutting implements and I was able to gather the following tools:

My limited arsenal of cutting implements!
(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved

Turns out the apple corer made short work of chopping onions and mushrooms, and though it was a bit awkward, the pizza wheel was able to slice my other vegetables. I would've of preferred to cook it in my enameled cast iron dutch oven, but as it was also packed, I settled for one of my heavier saucepans. Though the consistency of my chopping would definitely cost me points in a cooking competition, the end result was delicious!  To help take the edge off of winter, I garnished it with a chiffonade of fresh basil.

A lot of what passes for Bolognese is a tomato sauce with meat, but the true Italian Bolognese really is more of a meat sauce with a little bittle of tomato. Hearty and satisfying, it is perfect winter fare.

Pasta Bolognese, garnished with grated Grana Padano and
fresh basil chiffonade.  (c) 2014 Eric E. Paige
A good life is all about balance, so while a hearty meat sauce is a nice treat, it is not advised for daily consumption. As an atonement for my caloric indiscretions, I have also been making soups and stir fries.  I recently made a batch of turkey broth, but each day have enjoyed it different ways: from the classic turkey-noodle soup, to an Asian version with bok-choy and ginger, to a Mexican version with hatch chiles and chayote squash. They all used the same broth, but the add-ins made them a completely different meal.  Barley, faro, hominy, and rice are all great substitutes for pasta if you're looking to mix things up a bit, and the premade-stocks and broths are great if you don't have time to make homemade stock.

Ginger and Basil Stir Fry
(c) 2014 Eric E. Paige, All Rights Reserved
I encourage you all to try to do something each day to make the day special, whether it be watching the sunrise, cooking a nice meal (or going out), or simply enjoying a relaxing cup of tea or coffee. Find at least one thing for which to be grateful each day -- especially on those days when your feeling down. Yes, it's snowy and gray as I type this, and the polar vortex is supposed to drop the temps tonight, but it is all temporary-- the weather will shift. In the meantime, think of it as an OPPORTUNITY to stay in and read a good book, work on an art or craft project, or to enjoy your home and family.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Progress Report...
...Art Studio Update

Moving into a new space is always a challenge, especially when you are also downsizing.  My previous space was a two bedroom and the second bedroom served as my art studio.  In my new space I am using the dining area for a studio. The primary advantages are its proximity to the sink and the wonderful light.  The primary disadvantage is that there is limited wall space in a 9' x 9' room that opens to the living room and kitchen. 

The components that I kept from my old space are easily moved and can be configured in multiple ways. Anyone who has an artistic or other creative bent knows that the two key elements to a studio are horizontal work surfaces and easy access to supplies.

The north wall of my studio is the only uninterrupted wall in the studio. Fortunately, its relationship to the kitchen allows me to extend the kitchen counter into the studio and have 9 feet of counter space that can be used for art projects (or cooking projects if I am not working on art!).  

The East wall has a window 
taking up wall space.
(c). 2014 Eric E. Paige
The South wall opens to
the living room
(c). 2014 Eric E. Paige
The West wall opens to the kitchen, but the North wall is
uninterrupted. The Plan: extend the kitchen counter into the
studio, along the North wall. (c)2014 Eric. E. Paige

The base cabinets that I have for the studio are inexpensive storage pieces that you can find at most discount and home improvement stores. They are about 4 inches lower than a standard counter, but I found a way to use that to my advantage and gain additional storage space.

I started by placing the base units along the wall.  The open unit is in front of a wall outlet, so I don't have to give up access to electric. The units aren't very deep (about half the depth of a standard base cabinet) so I placed them about 4 or 5 inches from the wall. 

I then used a salvage door from IKEA to tie them all together.  As you will see this door will act like a shelf. Though the run doesn't go the full 9 feet, the end space will be good for tucking away larger items.  

Cabinets laid out, the top is a door from IKEA
(c) 2014 Eric E

For the countertop I used some maple shelves that I got from IKEA's as is department. I had to trim one of the shelves that was too wide, but one of them had a split, so I simple cut off the bad end. As luck would have it, a 1" x 4" board was the perfect size to make up the height difference.  I screwed two of the boards to the wall to act as a cleat, leaving a gap that allowed me to drop some wiring down to the outlet.
I cut three more boards to act as supports, and another to serve as a cleat along the East wall. For added strength, I will eventually connect all the supports with corner braces.

1" x 4" attached to the wall as a cleat. 
Note the gap left for wiring.
(c)2014 Eric E. Paige

These shorter pieces will help support the
countertop. (c)2014 Eric E. Paige

Ready to install the last piece! 
(c)2014 Eric E. Paige

Countertop and floating shelves installed.
(c)2013 Eric E. Paige

For easy access to supplies I use frequently, I installed 8 'floating' shelves that also came from IKEA.  Shopping the 'As Is' section saves money, but it also means limited selection, so two of the shelves are a different color, but I think it will look fine, and the primary concern is functionality!  

Though these floating shelves don't require brackets, I will install some underneath each shelf for additional support -- art supplies can be heavy, especially jars of paint!  

Serendipitously, the rack of storage bins I blogged about in an earlier post, fits perfectly above the radiator, and another floating shelf that I have will fit nicely above the opening between the studio in living room.

Repurposed rack, in my old studio. (c)2013 Eric E. Paige
Installed in the new space, just waiting for
the bins to get unpacked! 
(c)2014 Eric E. Paige

Because of the proximity of the entrance to the living room, the West wall won't accommodate a very deep shelving unit.  While I am keeping my eye out for something that will fit, I am also toying with the idea of running a series of shelves made from 1" x 4" that will allow me to maximize the space and achieve a built-in look.

Back to work for me, I still have a lot of unpacking and sorting to do. Check back for updates.  The kitchen should be finished this week and the living room is starting to look like a living room!